Debtors’ prisons in 21st century USA

When I was a boy in school, I was astonished to learn that there was such a thing as imprisonment for debt in 19th century Great Britain and the United States.  It didn’t make sense.  If somebody owes you money, how can they pay it back if they’re in jail.

Imprisonment for debt was abolished in the United States in the 1830s, but now it is making a comeback.  Here are some examples:

  • Breast cancer survivor Lisa Lindsay, a teaching associate in Herrin in southern Illinois, was sent a $280 medical bill in error and was told she didn’t have to pay it.  But the bill was turned over to a collection agency which got a court order, resulting in state troopers taking her from her home to jail in handcuffs.  She ended in paying $600 in collection and court costs just to settle the case.
  • Disabled roofer Jack Hinton, also an Illinois resident, was jailed for failing to make a $300 payment on an old debt to a lumberyard which he was under a court order to pay.  The judge said he was in defiance of the court court because he once had $1,000 in cash, although Hinton said he used the money to pay other bills.  Hinton’s wife got him out of jail by borrowing $300.
  • Jeffrey Stearns, owner of a concrete company in Hancock County, Ill., was arrested at his home for not paying $4,088 on a loan he took out to buy a pickup truck.  He was handcuffed in the presence of his four children and taken to jail, where he was strip searched and sprayed for lice.  He didn’t deny owing the money, but said he didn’t know he was being sued.

Iif you borrow money, you have a moral obligation to repay it, but I don’t believe this moral obligation overrides everything else in life, for example, the obligation to keep your children fed, clothed and sheltered.  If someone willfully refuses to pay their legitimate debts, creditors are entitled to garnish their wages or seize and sell their assets.  If someone owes more than they possibly can pay, then they can go through bankruptcy and pay what they can.  There is no need for imprisonment.

Technically none of these people were arrested for debt as such.  They were arrested for paying to obey court orders.  It amounts to the same thing.  In some states, courts and governments actively add to debtors’ burdens.  Alabama charges a 30 percent collection fee. Florida allows private collection agencies to add a 40 percent surcharge.  In addition, many Florida counties have private collection courts, which have the authority to send debtors to prison but there is no right to a public defender.

Another abuse is charging for access to the legal system.  Alex Tabarrok, who posts on the Marginal Revolution web log, wrote that some states charge fees for public defender services, pre-trial jail expenses and court costs even when the person is acquitted of the crime.   People can go to jail for not paying up, or they can lose their driver’s licenses—which is almost as bad as being in jail in terms of employment.

Click on Jailed for $280 and Welcome to Debtors’ Prison by CBS News and Debtors’ Prison for Failure to Pay for Your Own Trial by Alex Tabarrok on the Marginal Revolution web log for the sources of my facts and additional details.

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One Response to “Debtors’ prisons in 21st century USA”

  1. dadzrites Says:

    You left out the biggest debt scam in history: Child support and alimony. Child support & alimony comes from Soviet (Russian) Family Law, Article 81, and was adopted in the US in the early 1970s by virtue of radical womens’ groups and the women’s bar associations. Child support guidelines & enforcement came into being under the “Wisconsin Model” in 1976. That included child support enforcement based on gross income (not the reality of net income after taxes).

    What we have now is a $10 BILLION per year child support industry that makes outlandish claims that over $100 Billion in child support is owed since 1976. Given that is approximately $2-3 Billion owed every year, the solution to the problem is eliminating the entire $10 BILLION/ YR. child support industry, saving the taxpayers’ this huge amount of money being wasted each year, and send the child support from the money saved from disbanding the C/S Industry and sending the checks or wire transfers to the child support recipients. Problem solved! No more “deadbeat dad” hysteria! No more arrears! No more requests for additional taxpayers’ monies! No more arrogant, obnoxious, “deadwood” government child support workers to deal with!


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